Sheriff's forum: Experience vs. change

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Lee County sheriff candidates promised safer streets, open communication and beefed-up crime prevention at a forum sponsored Friday by the Kiwanis Club of Tupelo.
Incumbent Jim Johnson touted his 30 years of local law enforcement service, including eight as Lee County’s sheriff. And he reminded audience members he’s the only candidate with state certification.
“I think my record will speak for itself,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a Republican, faces plumber and former sheriff’s deputy Marty Rock in the Aug. 2. primary. Rock had been scheduled to attend the forum, held at the Summit Center, but he had to cancel due to business obligations.
It’s his second run for the post.
Democratic primary candidates include first-time hopeful and Monroe County detention officer Dovie Outlaw Williams. She faces former police officer and Mississippi Missing Children founder Sam Piraino. It’s Piraino’s third run for the office.
In the 2007 race, Piraino ran as a Republican while Johnson ran as a Democrat. Rock was an independent.
Williams and Piraino said they offer a fresh start in the sheriff’s office and want the agency to concentrate its efforts at home. Piraino favors less participation in the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit, and Williams wants to opt out of it altogether.
Both also oppose consolidating operations with municipal police departments.
“Each city has its own chief, assistant chief and officers,” Piraino said. “Lee County has 535 miles to cover – we don’t have enough manpower.”
Johnson said he’d welcome consolidated county law enforcement, which would allow each agency to keep its officers but place them under a single command.
He also praised the seven-county North Mississippi Narcotics Unit for fighting drug crimes on a scale that would be hard for any one agency to do alone.
When asked how they’d reduce jail overcrowding without expanding the current facility, the candidates also disagreed.
Johnson said he has implemented every available program, including electronic monitoring, to get nonviolent prisoners out of jail. But expansion one day will be a necessity.
Williams agreed. But Piraino said handling problems on the street, instead of arresting and jailing people, will free up space at the 202-bed facility.
When it came to radar, all three candidates said they support it because it will help catch speeders. Johnson explained that the Legislature first must pass a bill making it legal.
Williams said the department just needs to go ahead and budget money for the devices.
If re-elected, the current sheriff said he doesn’t anticipate making major staff changes. But his Democratic challengers said they’d interview employees and keep only those who fit their mission.
For Piraino, that mission is four-fold: good communications, strong youth programs, earning community respect and working in the schools. He also said he planned to renew his law enforcement certification by the November general election.
Williams said she wants to focus on children and the elderly.
“I feel it is my obligation to create an administration that is safe, clean and trustworthy,” she said.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.